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A Multisensory Improv Session Comes to the Wood Gallery

State of the Arts


Michael Arnowitt
  • Michael Arnowitt

Michael Arnowitt’s eyesight is failing, but that doesn’t make him any less visionary. In addition to composing and performing solo piano music, the Montpelier resident has collaborated with poets and presented an evening that mingled music with fine food from a local caterer. This Friday, he and four Vermont artists — Maggie Neale, Janet Van Fleet, Cully Renwick and Missy Storrow — will all “improv” together at the T.W. Wood Gallery.

That is, Arnowitt will improvise music, the women will improvise art, and they’ll probably play off one another. Before a live audience.

“I’ve always been into combining music and other senses,” Arnowitt says. In this case, it’s “a rare chance to see a painting being made from start to finish, and to watch how the music improv affects the content and style of the paintings” and vice versa, he writes in a press release.

“I’m going to play a number of pieces of different lengths and concepts; some are what a musician would call completely improv,” the pianist explains in a phone interview. “But we are going to pick a few concepts, such as migration, or January thaw — we’ve discussed a few [in rehearsals].” Nothing, however, is utterly preordained.

Though Arnowitt’s vision is hazy — he has a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa — he says he anticipates being influenced by the artists’ colors, which have their parallels in music. Van Fleet will bring some of the images closer to him by using an overhead projector, he adds. Also, Arnowitt notes, “Painters actually make sound — tapping, brushing.” These rhythms, which might go unnoticed by viewers focusing on the visuals, make for another potential influence on the arc of his compositions.

Does Arnowitt find himself becoming more attuned to his other senses as one of them diminishes? “That’s very controversial in the disability world,” he replies thoughtfully. While some believe the phenomenon is “a myth,” Arnowitt says, “I think there’s something to it.” But whether he hears more acutely now or is simply able to pay better attention, “It’s impacted me most in listening to other people playing music,” he says. “It’s strange being in a room with someone for two hours, hearing them, and not being able to really see them.”

Arnowitt hopes his visual disability “will make my piano playing better in the long run,” he says. “Meanwhile, while I still have some sight, I’ll do things like this collaboration.”

Maggie Neale, who will be working in acrylic, says she’s never done anything like this public “performance” before. Few visual artists have. But she’s not nervous about it, she says, because “once I’m in a painting, I just get lost in what I’m doing.” She adds that Arnowitt’s music is “very inspiring” and “a joy” to listen to. “If I could paint to the quality of his music,” Neale says, “I would be just thrilled.”

The audience will be able to ask questions of Arnowitt and the artists after the performance, Neale notes. And what will be the fate of the artworks? “We talked a little about that, but … good question!” Neale says. “Missy said some people might want to buy them right there, but some of the works might not be ‘take-home-able.’” That is, not finished pieces. Or dry. Either way, the evening is likely to be more about the creative journey than the destination.

Fans of Maggie Neale’s finished works will find plenty on display both across town and one town over. For the run of Lost Nation Theater’s Love, Isadora, her extra-long handpainted scarves hang draped and pinned on the curtain in the City Hall lobby. “It’s kind of like [Isadora Duncan’s] dressing room,” Neale suggests. The real-life dancer’s death by strangling was caused by, um, a long scarf caught in a sports-car tire. “Some of them are 22 by 90 inches,” Neale says. “I called them ‘Isadora’ scarves two years ago when I started doing that length.” The one-woman play ends this Sunday.

At the Blinking Light Gallery in Plainfield, Neale has a month-long exhibit of painted silk and works on canvas, titled “Color Musings.” Also a watercolorist and weaver, the Montpelier artist has long been enamored of the way pigments react with fibers. “The flow of dye through silk is intoxicating,” she says in her artist’s statement for the show. “The colors are rich and seem to continue their movement through drying.” Her abstract paintings on canvas are similarly inspired by “the chemistry and strata of the earth; one small movement can produce a major chain reaction of movements.”

And you thought watching paint dry was no fun.